Of Course Follow the Science…
But Not Blindly
We are told to “Follow the science.” This sounds good; very powerful. What reasonable person could argue with following the science? There are important things we need to know about science to help us determine if it’s worth following. If we don’t critically evaluate the things we are told, we become like sheep blindly following.
Science is the search for truth. Humans are very curious. We are constantly trying to understand the world we live in and beyond. We observe and experiment and, in the process, we learn. What we think we know today, will often change tomorrow as we get more information.
It’s really important that we understand that all science is not the same. At one end of the spectrum, there are hard facts that we can prove and are unchanging. 2 + 2 always = 4. At the other end of the spectrum, we have what we call the consensus opinion of the “experts”. This happens when we don’t really have the hard facts to draw a conclusion with absolute certainty, so those who are studying a subject come to agreement about what they believe is most likely. As you might imagine, science at this end of the spectrum changes a lot.
We had a great courtside view of science in action with COVID-19. We saw how a new virus was studied and as more information became available, what we thought we knew changed. Scientists engage in “modeling”, which is predicting what is going to happen down the road. Lots of assumptions go into modeling, as we saw with the predictions about COVID. Lots of assumptions that prove to be wrong lead to drastically wrong conclusions. We are always working with what scientists call “best available evidence.” Early in the course of study, that best available evidence often proves to be not so great.
As a registered nurse, my entire professional life was directed by science. What we believe to be true at any point in time informs how we approach a patient’s condition. In my experience, almost everything we think we know changes with more study. The treatment of most major health problems – cancer, heart disease, diabetes, as examples, has changed significantly over time.
A key part of the process of scientific study is debate. As more evidence is gathered, the scientists grapple with what it means. There is often disagreement among the “experts” about the conclusions that can be drawn from the data. Through disagreement, debate and more study, what we know moves along the spectrum from opinion to fact. A disturbing trend has developed in science. Dissenting voices are silenced. This “canceling”, as it has come to be known, is a very dangerous threat, not only to our first amendment but to the search for truth, as well.
It's important to realize that scientists are human. They have their agendas and their perspectives like everyone else. Though I am not suggesting dishonesty is a major factor in science, it does happen. In 2018 US News and World Report stripped the UW Children’s hospital of its ranking in pediatric urology because the chief of urology altered the data on patient volume. We should not assume scientists operate solely for the human good any more than the rest of us.
In summary, when you are told to follow the science, approach it with a critical eye and resist the label of “science denier” that often comes with a healthy questioning of what we are told.
Finally, it is not the role of the scientists to tell us how we use the information they provide. We, the people, have to weigh our options and make our choices. COVID-19 provided another great example. I believe hindsight will confirm that many extreme decisions were more harmful than helpful. Medical professionals approach their work with the goal of saving as many lives as possible. It’s up to the rest of us to determine what gain for what price.
So by all means, follow the science. It provides us useful information and an understanding of our world. But never blindly.